1995 was a stellar year in film. You’re not likely to see THAT statement repeated on this page often. I mean, wasn’t 1995 like 5 minutes ago? Certainly long after the classics era I so love. Yet, it really was a great year seeing the release of films like David Fincher’s SE7EN, Bryan Singer’s THE USUAL SUSPECTS, Mel Gibson’s BRAVEHEART, Martin Scorsese’s CASINO, John Lasseter’s TOY STORY, Ron Howard’s APOLLO 13 and Rob Reiner’s THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT. The last may not be considered among that year’s best by many, but it is for my money given it’s a smart, heart-warming romantic comedy, which makes for good, old-fashioned entertainment.
I remember enjoying THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT when I saw it in a theater when it was released. Can you believe that 1995 was 20 years ago? JAYSUS! Anyway, I just rewatched the movie as I chose it as my entry for Movie Rob’s blogathon honoring Rob Reiner this month. I chose it at random. I was in the mood for something “light” and since WHEN HARRY MET SALLY was already taken I went with THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT and I’m glad it turned out that way as I was reminded of what a terrific film this is, a film that has many of the elements in common with the great, romantic comedies of yesteryear. Among those are a great script (by Aaron Sorkin), fantastic acting, smart, rapid dialogue, elegance and substance.
Michael Douglas plays Democratic President Andrew Shepherd, a widower of three years who’s raising a teenage daughter in the White House. Shepherd’s approval ratings are in the 60-plus range, a great spot for a President who’s about to embark on a reelection campaign to be in. As his main political focus President Shepherd chooses a crime control bill likely to stir up his right-wing opponents. Just as his team is readying the bill particulars the President’s personal life takes center stage in the media when an environmental lobbyist named Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening) steps into the White House.
Sidney Ellen Wade is hired by a major lobbying firm with the sole purpose of persuading the President of the United States to pass legislation that would reduce carbon dioxide emissions substantially. As Sidney is rallying for her cause in a meeting with key Shepherd administration officials the President walks in and is immediately taken with her. So much so, in fact, that he invites Ms. Wade to be his date at a state dinner that evening honoring the newly elected French President. Under normal circumstances a man asking a woman out to dinner is no big deal, but this is the President of the United States who has not dated since the death of his wife. On the front pages of newspapers across the country the next day are images of President Shepherd dancing with Sidney Ellen Wade.
“The Sidney issue” becomes the concern of the President’s staff who think that the President’s new relationship with a lobbyist should be formally addressed. The President, however, feels strongly that his personal life should not be fodder for the press or the American people. Of course we all know that’s not the case. Sidney is also getting flack from her boss who is concerned he’s paying for a political terrier and getting a “prom queen” instead.
In the meantime as the President and Sidney struggle through the difficulties of trying to have a “normal” relationship on a world stage, Senator Bob Rumson (Richard Dreyfuss) the Republican candidate for President begins to hash up Sidney’s past in the media so that she quickly starts to be a liability to the President’s otherwise promising reelection campaign.
True to the romantic comedy formula, Andrew Shepherd and Sidney Ellen Wade work through the complications that present themselves – both on the personal and political fronts – and the relationship is realized in the end. I can’t imagine that’s a spoiler so no warning was offered. Even with the semi-predictable ending, however, THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT stands out for being gutsy weaving real political issues, some of which are still relevant like gun control and global warming, into a warm and romantic tapestry. I recently read a review of this movie where the reviewer states this movie couldn’t be more stale. I wholeheartedly disagree. To judge a movie based on how the times have changed in the “real world” is to do it an injustice. Imagine if we all judged movies from the 1930s or 1940s that way. It’s absurd. In any case, Rob Reiner stated in several interviews how his goal was to make an entertaining movie that shows real problems of a working President faced with the situation of falling in love. How a person in that role would balance a personal life and maintain privacy while juggling world issues all during an election was the focus and Reiner succeeds.
The film’s authenticity is also aided by the fact that the sets and surroundings are true-to-life. Rob Reiner himself spent several days following President Bill Clinton around in an unprecedented manner. I mean, with permission of course. He didn’t break laws or anything. The sets used throughout the film are wonderful, as close to the real buildings and spaces as possible – interior and exterior shots of the White House, etc. are beautiful. Interestingly, the Oval Office set was originally constructed for Ivan Reitman’s DAVE (1993) and was subsequently used for Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing, which brings me to the great supporting cast in THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT because Anna Deavere Smith who plays Robin McCall, President Shepherd’s Press Secretary appeared in all three productions featuring this Oval Office set. I love that connection.
Anyway, the entire cast of THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT is fantastic. Both Michael Douglas and Annette Bening are terrific in their respective roles and make a great onscreen couple to boot. I’m a big fan of both of them as actors and they deliver the goods here. Aside from Anna Deavere Smith also in support are such familiar faces as Martin Sheen (who would play the President in the same Oval Office in Sorkin’s TV series), Michael J. Fox, David Paymer, Anne Haney, Gail Strickland, John Mahoney and the aforementioned Richard Dreyfuss. Not too shabby!
I should mention that there are also a few laughs strewn about THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT most of which result from the complications that arise as the leader of the free world tries to do average, every day things. The day after the state dinner, for instance, President Shepherd wants to order flowers for Sidney himself, without summoning his staff. He goes to his assistant to ask for the phone number to a local flower shop and the young woman is flummoxed. “I don’t understand,” she says several times when the President asks her for “just the number of a florist.” He eventually gets the number, but then realizes he can’t order the flowers because his personal credit card is in storage and the woman in the flower shop thinks the call from the President is a prank. So the flowers don’t get ordered. Instead, the President sends Ms. Wade a token from her home state – a Virginia Ham.
There has been a lot of chatter lately – in classic film fandom circles – as to what constitutes a classic film. I try to be as open-minded as I can recognizing that the idea of “classic” has more to do with a film having staying power than it does the actual year it was produced. Now, one can easily argue that you can’t compare 70- or 80-year-old staying power to 20-year-old staying power, but – and this is not easy to say as a lover of the classics – good, old-fashioned entertainment doesn’t necessary have to be old. It just has to be good. And THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT is good, good old-fashioned entertainment.
For strict, classic diehards this movie offers a couple of direct ties to the oldies aside from its style and the other things I mentioned above. For one there’s a reference to the “Capraesque” quality in the film, referring of course to the wonderful Frank Capra films that in one way or another revolved around the American dream and the role the Presidency and the White House played in that concept. Reiner’s film is able to capture some of that as we see the tough Sidney Ellen Wade filled with reverence for both the office and the place and has to struggle a bit to see Andrew Shepherd as just a guy she’s dating. There’s also the fact that Rob Reiner himself is a classics movie fan, which is why (I think) many of his genre films stay true to “classics versions” of that particular genre. THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT and WHEN HARRY MET SALLY can both serve as “traditional” romantic comedies in many ways and MISERY, for instance, is a “traditional” thriller that doesn’t necessitate anything other than the story and camera, if you will, to tell an effective story and send chills down your spine. A guy named Alfred Hitchcock used to do something similar. Anyway, there’s an additional little tidbit that might warm a classics fan who hasn’t seen THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT to it – Frank Capra’s grandson, Frank Capra III was First Assistant Director on this movie.
Since this post is intended to honor Rob Reiner as a director I need only mention where THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT – a romantic comedy – falls within the timeline of his filmography to illustrate this man’s range and vision. In chronological order Reiner directed MISERY in 1990, A FEW GOOD MEN in 1992, the not-so-well-received NORTH in 1994 followed by THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT. As a fan of both MISERY and PRESIDENT I can attest to the fact that’s a hell of a range. I also happen to be a big fan of Rob Reiner the person – informed, passionate and vocal for or against things that matter. I salute you and your work, Mr. Reiner.
For much more on the work of Rob Reiner please visit Movie Rob where a grand list of entries dedicated to Reiner and his movies await as part of…